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Director General's Speech at Symposium on New Horizons for Nuclear Sciences and Technologies in Portugal: Health and Cancer Applications

Loures, Portugal
Yukiya Amano

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

(As prepared for delivery)

Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen, Good morning.

I am very pleased to be with you today at the Instituto Superior Técnico.

Your institution has an excellent reputation for the high quality of its teaching and research. I was very impressed by the labs which I saw just now and by the obvious enthusiasm of the scientists and students for their work.

Portugal was a founder member of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957 and is an important partner in many areas of our work.

In the public mind, the IAEA is associated primarily with our work to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. I have just spent a few days in Washington, where the main focus of my talks with senior U.S. officials was the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea.

But, in fact, the IAEA’s activities cover almost everything to do with nuclear science and technology.

Our mandate is Atoms for Peace and Development. Transferring peaceful nuclear technology to developing countries is core IAEA business and one of the most important areas of our work.

Through our technical cooperation programme, we have improved the health and prosperity of millions of people and delivered huge benefits to entire communities.

The IAEA now helps countries to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals in energy, food and agriculture, industry, water management and health, as well as in other areas.

Scientists, doctors and engineers from the IAEA and Portugal have worked together in many of these areas.

For example, we collaborated on fighting animal diseases such as avian influenza and African swine fever, on controlling obesity in adolescent children, on molecular imaging and on food irradiation. The Agency has assisted the Instituto Superior Técnico in its work on electron beam and x-ray applications.

Portugal helped the Agency to combat the Zika virus in Brazil and to control the Mediterranean fruit fly in Morocco. Both involve use of what is known as the sterile insect technique, a form of birth control for harmful insect pests.  

Today, I will focus on the IAEA’s work in health, and on cancer in particular, as that is the subject of your Symposium.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Health is a priority area for the IAEA’s 169 Member States. Our work in human health is unique and covers four main areas: nuclear medicine, radiotherapy, dosimetry and nutrition.

Improving access to cancer treatment in developing countries has been a priority for me since I became Director General eight years ago.

Cancer used to be regarded as a disease of prosperous, developed countries. But it is now reaching alarming proportions in developing countries and many are ill-equipped to deal with it.

It is estimated that, by 2030, some 60 percent of all new cancer cases will be recorded in developing countries, and that is where around 70 percent of cancer-related deaths will occur.

In many of those countries, prevention, screening, early diagnosis and treatment services are either non-existent or totally inadequate. In Africa, for example, nearly 30 countries do not have a single radiotherapy machine. This means that many patients die of diseases that would often be treatable if they lived in a developed country.

The IAEA is working to change that.

We help countries to plan and build nuclear medicine and radiotherapy facilities. We arrange education and training for oncologists, radiologists, medical physicists and other specialists.

The IAEA is an active partner in the United Nations Joint Global Programme on Cervical Cancer Prevention and Control, which aims to reduce deaths from this dreadful disease in participating countries by 25% by 2025.

Let me give you a few examples of our work.

In January, I was in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, for the inauguration of a new Cobalt 60 radiotherapy machine. Uganda had no radiotherapy services at all for two years after the old machine – the only one in the country – broke down.

We helped the Government to buy the new equipment, install it safely at the Uganda Cancer Institute and decommission the old machine. We provided training for specialist staff.

In Ghana, we provided diagnostic equipment for child cancers. We helped Lesotho to plan its first radiotherapy centre and arranged training for local doctors in radiation oncology.

In Asia, the IAEA helped 15 countries to use 3D image-guided brachytherapy, training more than 100 radiation oncologists and medical physicists in this important technique.

At the policy level, we work with partners such as the World Health Organization to help governments to put national plans in place to offer comprehensive cancer care to their people. IAEA expert missions assess the level of nuclear medicine and radiotherapy services in a country and offer recommendations on improvements.

The IAEA supports important research projects.

We also work closely with our Member States on nuclear safety, helping to ensure that both patients and staff are protected from harmful exposure to radiation.

Our Dosimetry Laboratory near Vienna provides dosimetry auditing services for radiotherapy centres throughout the world, free of charge. This is important for ensuring that patients receive exactly the right dose of radiation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The work of the IAEA in the cancer field undoubtedly helps to save lives. But the needs in developing countries remain great.

There is an estimated shortage of 5,000 radiotherapy machines throughout the world. To meet the cancer needs of developing countries, many thousands of radiation oncologists, medical physicists, dosimetrists and radiation therapists need to be trained.

This is a daunting challenge. But I believe much can be achieved if cancer in developing countries is given its rightful place at the top of the global development agenda and if governments, organizations such as ours, professional associations and leading NGOs work together.

I am therefore especially pleased that, after our discussion this morning, I will sign an agreement with the Minister for Science, Technology and Higher Education, and the Minister of Health, under which Portugal will support the training of health professionals from developing countries.

Up to 50 fellowships and scientific visits will be hosted at this Campus and by the Portuguese Institute of Oncology. In addition, 20 students from countries in which Portuguese is the official language will be offered a 50% reduction in tuition fees for Masters degrees in physics, medical physics and radiological protection.

I am very grateful to the Government of Portugal for its generosity.

This is exactly the type of assistance which will deliver real long-term benefits to the recipient countries, helping them to build up their expertise in the relevant fields so that they will be able to train their own specialists to a high standard in the future.

Our Memorandum of Understanding with Portugal also covers broader cooperation in the health field, including on the establishment of a proton therapy, research and training centre here at this Campus.

Proton beam therapy provides an advanced level of cancer treatment that is increasingly used in treating certain conditions, including paediatric cancers and certain eye cancers. Proton beams can target specific areas while delivering lower radiation doses to normal tissue.

The new proton centre will bring great benefits to cancer patients and significantly improve Portugal’s research capacity in this important field.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In conclusion, let me encourage doctors, other medical specialists and scientists among you today to consider if you might be able to share your expertise with your colleagues in developing countries.

Perhaps you could offer your services as a teacher or lecturer on IAEA training programmes. Or you could take part in IAEA expert missions.

The students among you might wish to consider applying for positions with the IAEA in Vienna, or spending time with us as interns or research fellows.

We have eight nuclear applications laboratories outside Vienna, which are presently being modernised. We are constantly seeking specialists for these, and in many other areas. The IAEA is a great place to work!

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I hope I have succeeded in giving you some insight into the fascinating work of the IAEA.

I could say much more, but I will stop here and will be happy to take your questions.

Thank you.

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